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Letter From St. Louis: Letter From Spring Training

"I went to the desert because I wished to watch games deliberately, to front only the essential facts of baseball, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I die, discover that I had not lived."
-Henry David Thoreau, if he were a Cubs fan

I left St. Louis on a cold, dark evening last week and arrived in the blast furnace known as the Valley of the Sun. Maybe "blast furnace" is too strong a term - that phrase is not used in Phoenix until May at the earliest, but the next two days delivered high temperatures, clear skies and the opportunity to take in some Cubs spring training baseball.

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Was I up to the task?

I had come to the desert to take in Cubs' games at Camelback Ranch in Glendale and HoHoKam Park in Mesa. This was my second visit to the Phoenix area, but my first-ever trip for spring training. I am going all in this year, commemorating my first year of owning Cubs season tickets. Also, I wanted to see this year's crop of new and old talent on display, and - more importantly - to scratch an itch that I have had for years.

There are two things I discovered out in the desert. The first is this: Spring training baseball means nothing. The stats and standings are empty numbers, because they are automatically reset on Opening Day. They are indicators, to be sure, but they never tell the complete truth and they cannot be relied upon - sort of like a teenager.

The players, of course, need the practice, and they need to be put through the simulated game action. They have to attend daily meetings, they warm-up and they stretch, and there is the sense that something is actually on the line in the Baseball Universe. But just about everybody in Arizona knows bette; in reality, this is the expensive alternative to seeing Triple-A baseball.

The second thing I learned is this: A man who is married and has children makes for a terrible reporter when when turned loose on a 60-hour baseball jag with two of his closest friends. At least in the literal sense of the word, anyway.

Some of the details have gotten lost along the way, so I have had to collect and assemble the bits and pieces of last weekend like a tailor would assemble a fine garment. I am grateful that I had my smartphone with me, because that indispensable bit of technology allowed me to reconstruct the weekend through the photos I took, the texts I sent and received, and the tweets I posted. From these pieces of evidence (as well as some official game stats) I have almost completely remembered my trip and why I went to Phoenix in the first place.

Let's start with this shocking factoid: The city of Phoenix measures exactly 517.948 square miles. This means that the city of Phoenix is twice the size of Chicago and more than eight times the size of St. Louis. Christ! So everything is spread out, as you can well imagine. Here's what I could not figure out while I was there, nor can I figure out now that I am home: How the hell is everything in Phoenix 45 minutes apart?! Everywhere you go is a 45-minute ride. Gas? Groceries? Mesa? Glendale Restaurants? Airport? They are all 45 minutes away. Like Clooney said in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, "Isn't this place some sort of geographical oddity!"

Also, everything in Phoenix looks like a Sergio Leone movie. Seeing as he directed the greatest spaghetti western of all time, I am breaking the weekend down to three categories: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Good

Cactus League Baseball: The weather is warm and predictable, the stadiums are close by. Fifteen of the 30 MLB teams call this area home for spring training, making it easy to see game after game of baseball. It doesn't matter one lick, as I said before, what a team's record is coming out of the desert. But spring training in the Cactus League reminds you that everyone starts fresh and everyone is in first place on Opening Day. Spring training lets you know that winter is finally over and the baseball season is just around the corner.

Camelback Ranch: Spring training home of the White Sox and Dodgers. Newer stadium, parking included with your ticket. The famed Dodger Dog is available for sale here, but doesn't compare with a pure Vienna beef Chicago dog. Good sight lines and overall a nice place to take in a game.

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HoHoKam Park: The Cubs have played spring training in Mesa since 1952, with HoHoKam their desert home for the last 33 years. They are constructing a new facility to be known as Wrigley West nearby, marking this as HoHoKam's last go for the Cubs. I am glad to have been able to see a game here. HoHoKam is a nice park; comfortable, broken in. A good place for a Cubs fan to take in a game, down a few Old Styles, and remember - once again - that the standings just don't matter.

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Future Star Javier Baez: This kid had a tremendous spring. He is being sent to the minors for more seasoning, but it's nice to know that someone like this is in the organization. A future star? Definitely, and if his glove can match his bat, the Cubs will have found another cornerstone to build on. He hit two homers against the Royals following two the day before in an unofficial game against Japan. After his second homer last Saturday - a monster - he had hit four homers on his previous seven pitches. Good news? We know he can hit the fastball. Bad news? Every opposing pitcher knows it now, too.

Latest Cuban Defector Jorge Soler: Big, strong kid, one of the ones I wanted to get a look at this spring. He is trying to show why he was the top prospect out of Cuba behind Yoenis Cespedes. Epstein and Hoyer took a significant gamble in signing Soler to a nine-year contract, but if it pays off, the Cubs will be sitting pretty. Lived up to his billing in the field, making a nice grab last Saturday's game, but looked like he was swinging for the fences on every at-bat. Was he trying to match the power that was on display that day? Possibly, but he still ended up with a double and an RBI. Sent to the minors as well for more seasoning, and we will have to see what happens down the road. Next year? This year? Who knows . . .

New Cubs: Part of spring training is welcoming the new crop of players, and seeing them in uniform and in action. I was glad to see new names like Feldman, Jackson, Schierholtz, Fujikawa and Hairston. Can they play? Sure, they all have resumes. Will they help this team win? Are they trade bait? Who knows? But for now, they are good players without huge contracts, so they are shrewd investments.

Old Cubs: Seeing existing players in uniform and in action. I was glad to have Gold Glover Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro defending the middle of the infield. Rizzo was back after his WBC hiatus. Soriano - still one of my favorites - was in left and strong at the plate.

Guacamole and Negro Modelos at La Barrios Cafe: Holy guacamole! Maybe the best I've ever had. Consistently rated one of the best Mexican joints - if not the best - in Phoenix, and I can believe it.

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La Barrios wall art.

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When in Rome: Old Styles in the desert. In 40 years of wandering, Moses himself could not find a beverage that so perfectly quenched a thirst.

The Sounds Of Silence: The Cubs' game against the White Sox was broadcast by WGN, but since I was in Arizona, I did not have to hear Hawk Harrelson yapping at me the whole game. Thank heaven for small favors.

The Cubs Put On A Hitting Clinic Against The Royals: Veteran KC pitcher Bruce Chen was fighting for a spot in the starting rotation, so he was actually trying to get batters out. The Cubs shelled him. David DeJesus set the tone by leading off the game with a homer.

The Bad

Local Time: Arizona has some sort of hatred for daylight savings. Even though they are Mountain Standard Time, they are two hours off CST for half the year and one hour difference the other half. Screwed up philosophy, and it screws you up mentally.

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The Best Of The Worst: The best Mexican food I could find after the first night of over-indulging was Jack in the Box. I am so ashamed.

Plate Discipline: Against the White Sox, it looked like the Cubs were giving away at-bats. Dale Sveum says that won't be the case this year, but this game gave me no indication of that. Hitting coach James Rowson may have his work cut out for him.

Free Parking At HoHoKam: HA! It doesn't exist.

Cup Of Coffee: Disappointed to not have the chance to see Albert Almora while he was in Mesa for his cup of coffee. If he is going to be a cog in this machine, and there is reason to believe he will, I was hoping to at least get a glimpse. Now he's nursing a wrist injury and will be out until May at the earliest.

The Ugly

Valley Of The Sun: We set a record for high temp that first day, hitting 92 degrees on the thermometer. Warm, to say the least. At least we had SPF Irish sun screen and plenty of cold beer. Never too early to complain about the heat.

Carlos Marmol: I love the potential that Carlos Marmol has. I love that when he is on his game, he is virtually unhittable. Unfortunately, he has not been on his game for some time. Even though he threw a 1-2-3 inning against the Royals to close out the game we saw, he gave up six in the ninth a week later in a tight game. If he doesn't find the mojo he lost two years ago, it could be another brutal season for him.

White Sox Kicking Our Ass: Unbelievable. Scott Feldman looked like he was throwing BP - no heat, no curves, no breakers. Cubs lost to the White Sox 15-3, giving my buddy - a Sox fan - bragging rights on the day. Ouch.

Question: What is worse than a Sox fan with bragging rights? Answer: Nothing.

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So I hereby proclaim spring training baseball to be a good thing. Yes, the stats are meaningless. Yes, some of the names are entirely forgettable and will soon be entirely forgotten. And yes, there is a "quasi" baseball element to the whole thing. But this is what I love the most: The Promise.

There is a promise, an inimitable baseball law stating that spring training leads to Opening Day, which leads to summer. Soon, I will be taking in Cubs games here in St. Louis and from my bleacher seats in the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field. Last year will be just a bad memory. The past 104 seasons will only be a footnote, and the Cubs will start the 2013 season in first place.

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Previously:
* Letter From St. Louis: Stan Was Truly The Man.
* Letter From St. Louis: Behind Enemy Lines.

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Dan Sheahan is our man in St. Louis. He welcomes your comments.

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